I'm very excited to be included in Gyroscope Print's postcard print subscription program. Subscribe now and get a print from my series Hollow Earth. There is also a nice write up of my work on their site here. Stay tuned to their site all week for some of my favorite photographer's work.
Each generation must come to terms with its stuff. The refuse, litter and products that adorn our homes, call for our attention, make our lives easier, or simply amuse us and via for our money. They surround us and infiltrate our lives in strange ways we often don’t consider. Paul Salveson’s new book Between the Shell explores the mundane, weird and oddly exotic things that fill our homes. Concocting strange still-lifes and isolating the plastic wrapped oddities of a typical suburban home, Salveson has created a perplexing and amusing portrait of our modern material world.
Vacillating between evidentiary shots of food, synthetically encased stuff and absurdist assemblages of suburban junk, Salveson responds with a child-like sense of wonder to the world around him. Between the Shell is the kind of work Peter Fraser and Fischl & Weiss might create if they collaborated while trapped in a suburban wood-paneled basement. Salveson’s work combines a forensic-like attention to the surface and details of each object with a curious reimagining of the objects’ relation to their environment and intended purpose. Mundane objects like cheese puffs, plush carpets and dough are transformed into foreign objects that are simultaneously fascinating, hilarious and revolting. Foodstuff is twisted and contorted into new shapes. Carpets become alien geometric surfaces. A Jacuzzi light morphs into a menacing portal. A children’s wooden bead maze weaves through the frame and dances in front of a shelf covered with baskets and seashells – the lines and shapes merging and breaking apart.
Beyond the safety of the laboratory, studio or classroom, field trips
help test theories and assumptions in the real world. They are
educational excursions. Coming back with new evidence, they challenge
assumptions or simply affirm them. At their best, the provoke us and
force us to reground our ideas and beliefs in the world. Collecting
photographs taken in Israel between 2009 and 2011, Martin Kollar’s Field Trip offers
his own fragmentary field-guide, missives and observations from the
politically fraught and culturally complex region. Alien and perplexing,
Kollar’s Israel is a land marked with checkpoints, ambiguous structures
and oddly unsettling experiments on animals and humans alike. It both
questions and affirms our expectations leaving the viewer unsettled and
Field Work has its origins in a project commission by French
photographer Frederic Brenner. Invited along with ten other
photographers, including Fazal Sheikh, Wendy Ewald, Stephen Shore,
Gilles Peress, Jeff Wall and others, Kollar was asked to photograph the
region. Although taken to various locations, Kollar was given great
freedom to explore. As he travelled around, he found the country both
foreign and remarkably familiar. Harassed at checkpoints and under
constant surveillance, Kollar was reminded of his childhood growing up
in communist Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia. From the omnipresent
surveillance to the militarized landscape, the political and daily
absurdities of his youth were drawn into relief when seen along those in
Visiting locations like the Weizmann Institute of Science, military
training sites and kibbutzim, Kollar captured images of strange
otherworldly beauty that feel like behind-the-scenes stills from a
strange B-movie. Bees swarm through the air and around their hives in
one two image spread, a woman lies anxiously under a monstrous dental
contraption, birds are measured and animals are pried open with stomach
ports or worse. Despite the relentless security, even the animals aren’t
safe. Poked, prodded and mangled, the animals have a sense of weary
resignation that is mirrored in the portraits of Israeli citizens and
soldiers who are seen sleeping, shuffling through the landscape or
submitting to experiments. No one is safe and no violation is beyond the
In some ways, it has become a bit of a cliché to speak about the
"unknowable" political and cultural complexities of Israel.
Unfortunately, this allows for an all too convenient retreat and refusal
to take a position or probe more deeply. While an acknowledged
subjective approach is always preferably to an assertively false one,
the subjective also runs the danger of lapsing into solipsistic
obtuseness in the face of the new and unknown. Rather than masking
ignorance with claims of complexity, Kollar reveals something that feels
both personal and true to his subject and avoids this pitfall. Through
the sometimes jarring juxtapositions and decontextualized imagery, the
work points to the ways in which the odd realities of a chaotic
militarized zone are normalized and coexist with everyday life. Kollar’s
odd and haunting images highlight the ways in which the absurd butts up
against the beautiful, the horrific against the astonishing and the
banal with the casually violent.
How does one deal with the cacophonous overflow of images we are faced
with everyday? The anxiety induced by photography's profligate nature
have been present since its invention and only grown with its mechanical
reproducibility and the concurrent growth of the mass media. In some
ways true, it's also a recurrent anxious tic, a lazy refrain. Daniel
Gordon's work does not explicitly deal with the problem. Instead, like
many artists, he deals with the aftermath. His work mines the scraps and
detritus of our obsessive image culture – the forgotten images on
Flickr, the lost or barely glanced at images on personal sites, the
uploaded selfie or the images tucked away in the back corners of the
web. Culled from photographs online, the printed, torn and distressed
fragments that form Gordon's cubistic sculptures and images come
together to form volatile images of beguiling beauty.
Still Lifes, Portraits and Parts
brings together a collection of Gordon's images that fall under these
classic, and one less classic, categories. Visually referencing a heady
mix of Picasso, Matisse and DeKooning, Gordon's disorienting portraits
and still-lifes pull together image fragments from multiple sources. An
ear here, a nose there and a mouth from over there. Typically found
through a common Google image search, the photographic pieces are then
printed out, torn, taped and reconfigured in the studio. Gordon then
photographs these sculptures only to break them down, tear them apart
and reuse the images once again. Gordon never hides his own hands. Messy
and at times sloppy, the torn images reveal their own fragmentary
nature, their tattered edges, and seem on the verge of collapse. The
grotesque faces and fruit struggling to coalesce or hold steady before
falling apart again into piles of paper.
Of Gordon's three subjects, it is the 'parts' that are the most
compelling. Seemingly empty, the photographs often are often just piles
of paper or contain an ear or nose popping out of a boxy empty space.
They are the cast aside parts, the half deconstructed remains of the
surrounding images. In one image an ear, supported by a thin armature,
hovers expectantly and casts a nose like shadow on a vaguely outlined
face. Seen alongside the portraits, they appear like empty stages – the
oddly grotesque women and men have stepped aside, leaving behind a nose,
ear or hair, or simply wait to enter stage right. In contrast to the
often-disturbing portraits and disruptive emptiness of the parts, the
still-lifes are the most serenely calming of the images. Flowers and
perplexing pineapples unfold and implode. Like the spatially mystifying
apricots and apples of Cezanne, the rainbow-tinged fruit of Gordon's
pictures transcend and transform their humble subject and exhibit an odd
density and volume all their own.
The book is beautifully printed and bound with an exposed spine that
reveals the stitching. Under a dust jacket that looks like a forgotten
Matisse catalog or artist's book, the white cover is subtly
blind-stamped with the title. Like the dust jacket, the entire book
pulsates with chromatic intensity. Cold blues, rancid red and sickly
yellows. Colors, like the fleshy tones of his portraits, are often
inverted, adding to their disruptive and spatially disorienting nature.
The bright primary colors are unrelenting. In contrast with the often
muted and polite colors of much color photography, these images are
The book concludes with an essay by MoMA curator Eva Respini. Starting
with an anecdote about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the
artist, Respini recounts her discussion with Gordon about the role of
the lens-based artists in the midst of proliferating images. She then
goes on to discuss Gordon's work. Although not immediately apparent, the
essay's endnote reveals its structure. Cobbled together from various
writings on contemporary photographer's work, the essays is actually a
patchwork of Respini's own writings – repurposed and altered by simply
swapping out the original artist's name for Gordon's. Respini also
acknowledges the essay's inspiration, Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay "The Ecstasy of Influence,"
which addresses issues of influence, originality, appropriation,
copyright and remix culture by creating a patchwork of other author's
writings on the subject. (If you've never read it, stop what you're
doing and read it now.) While the recycled words speak powerfully about
Gordon's work and smartly play off his own collaged technique, it's a
touch disheartening that the writings about other artist's work can be
so easily repurposed. However, as a tongue-in-cheek pastiche, it's a
brilliant piece that addresses both Gordon's work and playfully
critiques the often redundant and moribund art writing that dominates
wall-texts and catalog essays.
While Gordon's images might not be to everyone's taste, I don't think
anyone can deny their forceful power and originality. In a medium so
easy to master, yet so difficult to be truly original, Gordon's work is
all his own. Assuming the heavy mantle of modernist giants, Gordon takes
great risks and pays obvious homage to these artists, but achieves
something all his own. Incorporating the visual lessons of their work
into the photographic realm, Gordon emerges on the other side with
startling and grotesque images of playfully beauty.
Please note: This review originally appeared in photo-eye on November 14th, 2013. You can get the book here.
Photography is particularly ill equipped to visualize the ineffable or to address what can't be easily expressed in words. Bound to its indexical nature, photographs are frustratingly tethered to their subject matter. Yet this limitation and challenge makes photography a particularly rich medium. The tension between the actual and suggested meanings of an image is often key to its power. Because of its frequently obtuse nature, photographers often lazily use keywords like 'memory' and 'trauma' to impart significance to images and work that is not resolved. However, in skilled hands, a photograph can deal with these subjects. Teresa Eng's Speaking of Scars attempts to address a personal trauma and its lingering presence within her memory. Through inventive design and subtly suggestive images, Eng's book avoids these pitfalls and, by leading us through her therapeutic process, achieves a beauty and power all its own.
The book's design is especially interesting and crucial to its success. Eng makes use of folded pages, translucent overlays and overlapping pictures. Images unfold, pile up and fold back onto themselves. Stacked on top of one another they suggest that each image is built upon and dependent on others. Even in their cumulative powers images can't answer or explain. Left with mysterious piles, folds and overlays, the images remain silent in the face of a trauma they are incapable of expressing. Unlike a lot of clever design whose bells and whistles do little to enhance the work, the multiple strategies used within the book are essential to its meaning. One must engage the images to decipher their meaning. We are active participants. Like Eng herself, we puzzle and infer meaning from the images. The book contains little text beyond a J.M. Coetzee quote in the beginning and a short personal statement at the end that reveals the full story behind the work. It is worth leaving that unsaid as it adds to the power of the book.
Most of the images seem to take place in a hospital or place of convalescence – hospital rooms overlook the sea, coastal mountains sit in the distance and fruit or flowers sit on the windowsill. However, all is not peaceful. Images of calming hope are mixed with images of enigmatic frustration and silent rage. In one image, a blunt post or furniture leg pushes obdurately against a stretched and resistant vinyl floor. The few people who do appear reveal bruises or turn away from the camera, their faces and bodies obscured in shadows. Through her careful editing, images gain powerful and menacing resonance through their associative sequencing and pairs. An innocuous ripe cantaloupe echoes an image of bruised flesh and mirrors back terrifying possibilities and associations. A small bunny statue sits in a corner and appears to be retreating from the world and difficult memories. Blinds and curtains obscure the outside world or part to reveal the light and sea. Darkness and light wax and wane like moments of hope and despair. In another image, a silk wrapped fragment of furniture is more suggestive of what it is hiding than its pink pretty surface.
The therapeutic value of art, for both the maker and viewer, is fairly obvious. What is less frequently revealed is the therapeutic process for the artist. In Speaking of Scars, we are drawn closely into Eng's own therapeutic process. Refracted through her trauma and difficult memories, the work takes us along with her slow recovery. Forced to make connections and see the subtle relationships through Eng's eyes, we see that however powerful images may be in revealing the world around us, they can also suggest deeper, unspoken and evolving meanings. As viewers, like the artist, it requires work to make these connections, but the rewards can be great, cathartic and beautiful.
Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on Oct. 28th, 2013. You can get the book here.
Adam Bell is a photographer and writer. He is the co-editor and co-author of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His reviews and essays have been published in afterimage, Ahorn Magazine, foam, photo-eye, Lay Flat, Paper-Journal and The Brooklyn Rail. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department in New York City.